I attended the launch event of the $300 million Call of Duty League and it was a wild three-day whirlwind showcasing the potential of the esports industry. (ATVI)

Call of Duty League Main Stage

  • Activision Blizzard just launched the Call of Duty League with a weekend-long event at The Armory, a historic venue in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
  • The Call of Duty League has 12 teams based in the United States, Canada, and Europe, reportedly valued at $25 million each. Each team will host a live event during the eight-month season, with the first in Minneapolis.
  • The kickoff event was hosted by the league’s Minnesota-based team, the Rokkr, and featured matches for all 12 teams and also included a $250,000 tournament for amateur players called Call of Duty Challengers.
  • The crowd was a mix of “Call of Duty” fans and hardcore esports players.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Activision Blizzard, the largest, most valuable games company in the Americas and Europe, just kicked-off the Call of Duty League, a professional gaming circuit for one of the world’s most popular video games, and the video game publisher’s latest venture in the growing esports industry.

Twelve franchise owners reportedly paid $25 million each to join the Call of Duty League, creating teams to represent major cities in the United States, Canada, or Europe. The league will visit all 12 host cities during an eight month season that began in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on January 24.

Business Insider attended the Call of Duty League’s launch event, a three-day spectacle that would test whether Activision’s massive esports investment could turn the millions of people who play “Call of Duty” every year into fans of esports and competitive play — or if that $300 million investment, and all that goes into launching a new esports league, would collapse under its own weight.

During the weekend thousands of fans packed into The Armory, a historic venue in downtown Minneapolis. For many of the attendees, this was their first esports event — the league intentionally chose to launch in the Midwest to prove how much of an impact the “Call of Duty” brand can have. Others esports leagues have typically chosen more popular tourist destinations for major events, but for three days in Minneapolis, the Call of Duty League felt like the biggest show in town.

The event was hosted by the Minnesota-based team, the Rokkr, which is co-owned by the media mogul Gary Vaynerchuk. All the teams competed in “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare,” the latest entry in the best-selling video game franchise. “Call of Duty” has a long history in esports, but Activision’s Call of Duty League provides a professional infrastructure for players who previously relied on sponsors and prize money to earn a living. Players in the new league are given a $50,000 minimum salary, housing during the eight-month season, and health benefits.

Along with a series of professional matches, the Minneapolis kick-off event included a $250,000 tournament for more than 500 amateur “Call of Duty” players. As a result, the crowd was a mix of “Call of Duty” fans and die-hard competitors looking to prove themselves.

Here’s what it was like at the Call of Duty League’s launch event hosted by the Minnesota Rokkr in Minneapolis:

Fans started lining up outside the historic Armory in Minneapolis hours before the Call of Duty League matches were set to begin.

The Armory was home to the NBA’s Minnesota Lakers for 10 years before they moved to Los Angeles. It’s huge and can fit up to 8,000 people.

The main stage was quite the spectacle, showcasing one head-to-head match after another. The massive screen displayed all of the in-game “Call of Duty” action, along with live camera footage from the venue.

Call of Duty League’s in-house production offered everything you’d expect from a major sporting event, including live commentary, and an analyst desk to help break down the action to the audience and fans who tuned into the live stream.

Dark ambient lighting created a theater-like effect during matches, with the spotlight focused on the stage.

Professional “Call of Duty” matches are fast-paced and unforgiving, with the broadcast cycling through the action from each player’s perspective.

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The crowd supported all 12 teams during the weekend, but the home team, the Minnesota Rokkr, had the most fans by far.

A few Rokkr fans even took the time to dress up for the weekend!

The Minnesota Rokkr shares ownership with the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. The full team is living in the Minneapolis area during the season and Rokkr has an 11,000 square foot headquarters at the Vikings’ training facility.

Every team got a big-time introduction before their matches — players took the stage like wrestlers marching down to the ring.

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Fans were able to explore different levels of The Armory during the three days of Call of Duty League matches. The event ran for more than 8 hours each day, so the size of the crowd shifted as fans moved around the arena.

With no assigned seats the crowd wasn’t always packed, but thousands of Call of Duty fans were in attendance during the weekend.

On the lower level of The Armory, hundreds of amateur players were competing in a $250,000 tournament called Call of Duty Challengers.

More than 160 different amateur Call of Duty teams traveled to play, but only a lucky few took home prize money.

Some of the Call of Duty Challengers teams were sponsored by well-known esports organizations. A few Call of Duty League teams even sponsor their own Challengers squads to help develop pro talent like a professional sports team would.

While the pros upstairs were commanding the main stage, the Challengers event was fueled by raw competitive energy.

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Team Singularity took home the first place Challengers prize of $80,000. Singularity is based in Denmark and sponsored five players from England.

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The lower level also included arcade machines, merchandise tables, player autograph signings, and a few photo-booths.

The Call of Duty League takes a lot of inspiration from professional sports. Its structure — regional teams traveling to compete — is new for professional esports. Activision Blizzard even hired a former NFL executive to spearhead the new league.

The pro “Call of Duty” players were the stars of the show, with post-match press conferences and pre-recorded interviews showing off player personalities and how they handle their careers.

While most of the weekend was filled with excitement for the new league, there were a few controversial moments.

Some professional players expressed frustration with the sudden changes to the game and a lack of clarity on the league’s rules.

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After accidentally forfeiting a crucial point for a rule violation, the Los Angeles Guerrillas posted a statement on Twitter criticizing the league for punishing them and failing to specify all of the rules in advance.

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While the league may have a few things to improve on, the attendance and versatility of the kick-off event showed that Call of Duty could draw an audience in a city that had never had a major esports event.

Moreover, the live YouTube stream brought in 102,000 simultaneous viewers at its peak, and more than 975,000 have watched the replays of the broadcast in the past week.

The Call of Duty League will resume on February 8 and 9 with an event hosted by the London Ravens. The event will also be streamed live at YouTube.com/CODLeague, where you can also find replays of the launch event in Minnesota.



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